The Importance of Buddy Holly in Music History
So what’s the big deal about Buddy Holly? If you’re under 50 you may have wondered why his name gets touted so much in certain circles, especially those of older rock ‘n rollers. You may have wondered why this goofy looking guy in glasses seemed to attract such a following in an era when much sexier entertainers like Elvis Presley were on the rise. You may have wondered why the guy who wrote Peggy Sue gets so many accolades for such a simplistic and even amateurish-sounding song. In fact, you may have even wondered if Buddy Holly would be remembered much at all had he not died young in a plane crash.
Rest assured, he would.
There are plenty of lengthy biographies of Buddy Holly readily available but in this article we’ll simply sum up some key points about the man which reveal his amazing talents, the reason he is so widely respected, and his significance to music history.
Buddy Holly’s World
Perhaps the biggest reason for losing sight of Buddy’s accomplishments today is that we take the modern music scene, which Holly helped to create, for granted. Consider the world Buddy Holly grew up in. Big band music, romantic crooners, and show music were the most popular. Country music and bluegrass was the norm in many regions of the country. Even classical music was significantly popular. Jazz, Boogie Woogie, and Doo-Wop, musical styles originated by black musicians and the true origins of rock ‘n roll, were relatively popular but also limited and in many ways restricted in the commercial market. This was the musical world into which Buddy Holly came of age, and the musical world Buddy Holly would change.
Buddy Holly Was A Pioneer and an Innovator
Buddy Holly didn’t invent rock ‘n roll, what Buddy did was play a key role in establishing the roots of rock ‘n roll as a widespread cultural phenomenon, while at the same time paving the way for all kinds of popular music in the future. Buddy Holly wasn’t just about rock ‘n roll he was about new and remarkable approaches to popular music artistry. Buddy created styles, methods, procedures and even a culture of relating music to audiences that had simply never been done or even conceived of before, and yet, for us today, seem so obvious that it’s difficult to imagine that someone ever had to pioneer these things.
Writing your own music was not the norm for popular entertainers before Buddy Holly. He was a singer/songwriter before that concept really even existed. Most popular entertainers were, just that, entertainers. Some of them were exceptionally good at it, even great, but they didn’t write the music. They were stage performers, charming personalities and beautiful singers. Buddy was different. He was a songwriter and music creator first., At the same time however he was quite an impressive stage performer at that, filled with energy and a charismatic quirkiness: Yet what truly lives on today is the wealth of music he wrote and produced, as well as how he went about it.
Buddy Holly Was Involved in Producing His Recordings
If writing your own songs was a rarity in the pop music world of the 1950’s producing your own recordings was as foreign a concept as walking on the moon. This just wasn’t done. No one had thought to do it much less had the audacity to suggest it. Not only did Buddy Holly suggest it, he demanded it, slowly getting more involved in the production until he was at times in charge of it. Then he excelled at it, advancing new recording techniques and methods for laying down tracks that would forever change the industry.
Although there are plenty of variations, we take for granted today that any rock band will consist of a at least two guitars, a bass guitar, and drums. It just goes without saying, but it didn’t go without saying in the 1950’s. Again, big band music was still popular at the time and early rock 'n roll performers often played with a big band. Buddy Holly on the other hand, leading his three-man band the Crickets while playing his Fender Stratocaster, an instrument he popularized, basically made standard the free-styling rock n’ roll band ensemble as we know it today and have known it for 50 years.
Buddy Holly’s Voice
Credit: buddy holly singingBefore Buddy Holly most male popular performers were crooners. Men with deep, velvety voices and impressive timbres. Think Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Some of the early rock ‘n roll singers and younger pop singers of Buddy's generation were the same, possessing deep and resonant voices of great musical quality and range; singers such as Elvis Presley and Paul Anka for example. Buddy Holly however had a shallower and more untrained sounding voice, a more natural sound, and sometimes an even peculiar, fun and humorous sound, depending on how he used it. Most notable was his trademark hiccup heard in so many songs, something which even the best Buddy Holly imitators cannot duplicate and rarely even try. Buddy's natural and individualistic singing style paved the way for countless popular singers to follow, singers not known for singing skill as much as absolute distinctiveness, i.e. Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger, all of whom have spoken of Buddy Holly's influence on their careers.
Buddy Holly’s Essential Influence on Future Bands
Buddy was especially popular in England and toured there. In a few of those English audiences future members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones could be found, listening and watching with amazement, learning all they could. They were consequently inspired to become song writers themselves and engaging performers. They were also motivated to be themselves instead of trying to fit some commercial mold of teen idols. John Lennon once commented how he used to think he could never perform on stage wearing glasses until he considered that Buddy did it, and without shame or reservation. Somehow Buddy could even make a nerdy style come off as cool and hip. In later years both the Beatles and the Stones readily and eagerly spoke of the role Buddy Holly had in their development as musicians. Paul McCartney once narrated a great documentary on Holly and also secured ownership rights to all of his songs.
Oft Overlooked Facts About Buddy Holly
1. Buddy Holly didn’t just write and sing Peggy Sue. Unfortunately that's the only song many today even know about. Buddy Holly wrote some 40 songs and was prolific in performing and recording many more, covering quite a range of styles. Paul Anka also wrote a song specifically for Buddy ("It Doesn't Matter Anymore") which he recorded not long before his death.
2. Buddy Holly’s roots were actually in country music.
3. Buddy Holly didn’t grow up in the middle of a busy music or culture scene such as New York. Instead he grew up in a small Texas farm town, probably about the last place on earth one would have looked for a great new talent in the popular music industry. What’s more, he didn’t immediately abandon his small town roots once he started becoming successful. He was in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas often and continued to record music at the recording studio of Norman Petty in the even smaller town of Clovis, New Mexico. All of Buddy’s famous early recordings were made there.
4. In the months before he died, and unfortunately we have to break down Buddy’s career into months, he began to wander from rock ‘n roll and even question it's future. Although his rock ‘n roll music was what he was known for his musical interests ranged much further. In fact, he, like the Beatles years later, became restless with the crazed pop music scene and began to look for new creative outlets. Shortly before his death he began recording more melodic songs with a full orchestra in a New York studio, songs such as "True Love Way's, Buddy's most romantic song.
Two Short Years
The most remarkable fact of all is that Buddy Holly accomplished all that he did while a very young man and in a brief career lasting only 2 years. It captives the mind to try to imagine what Buddy might have done had he lived longer than age 22. Instead, with that fateful plane crash on that cruel February night, although the music didn’t exactly die with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, the American music scene was temporarily paralyzed and the British invasion took over, all the while admittedly inspired by Buddy Holly.
If Buddy Holly is a stranger to you, do yourself a favor and check out some of the many recordings beyond Peggy Sue. You’ll find music that is creative, fun, stirring, sentimental, and timeless.